This classic novel by William Faulkner opens with the news that Lucas Beauchamp, a black man living in the countryside of Yoknapatawpha County, has been accused of murdering a white man, Vinson Gowrie. The novel is told from the point of view of sixteen year-old Charles ‘‘Chick’’ Mallison, and the news reminds him of the first time he met Beauchamp, four years earlier.
As a twelve-year-old boy, he had gone rabbit hunting on the Edmonds plantation, where Beauchamp lives, and accidentally fell into a frigid creek. After the accident, Lucas Beauchamp takes him to his cabin, where his wife, Molly, feeds Chick while his clothes are drying. Chick is impressed by Beauchamp’s manner, which is self-confident to the point of being contemptuous—odd behavior for a black man in Mississippi in the late 1940s. Chick tries to pay for the meal, but Beauchamp refuses the seventy cents he offers; insulted, Chick throws the money on the floor. He leaves feeling that he must reestablish the proper relations between the races (from his point of view, Beauchamp, as a racial inferior, should have accepted the money the way a waiter accepts a tip). Chick only feels free of the burden when, after some years, Beauchamp seems no longer to recognize him during his rare trips to Jefferson, the county seat, where Chick lives.
Chick hears frequent stories about what the people of Yoknapatawpha regard as Beachamp’s arrogant behavior. Then, Gowrie is murdered. Next to a country store, Beauchamp is caught with a pistol in his hip pocket, standing over Gowrie’s corpse. The murder happens in a district of the county called Beat Four, a kind of rural slum inhabited by ‘‘white trash,’’ to use the old Southern slang term. The locals want to lynch Beauchamp right away, but it is Saturday night, only three hours before Sunday, and they do not want to have to rush; etiquette dictates that lynchings do not happen on Sundays. Beauchamp spends the night chained to the local constable’s bed, and Sheriff Hampton escorts him to jail in Jefferson the next day. As he arrives at the jail, Beauchamp sees Chick in the crowd and tells him he wants to speak to Chick’s uncle, the attorney Gavin Stevens.
Chick and Stevens visit Beauchamp at the jail. Beauchamp reveals that he has summoned Stevens to hire him to do a job that he is vague about, but he assures Stevens he can pay for it. Stevens refuses at first, in anger. He is quite convinced that Beauchamp is guilty of the murder. When he calms himself, he asks Beauchamp to explain what happened, and Beauchamp begins to unfold the story: The murdered Vinson Gowrie and another man were partners in a sawmill operation. The other man, however, was stealing the lumber at night, selling it in another town, and pocketing the money; Lucas had seen him doing it. Stevens is still angry, but offers to attempt a legal maneuver that will at least save Beauchamp’s life: he will request a change of venue for the trial to Mottstown, which is far enough away that no one there knows Beauchamp. He will then, in the trial, point out Beauchamp’s advanced age and previous good record, and hope he will not be executed, but rather sent to the penitentiary.
After they leave the jail, Chick and Stevens part ways, and Chick considers turning his back on the situation. Instead, he returns to the jail and offers to take the job Beauchamp had wanted his uncle to do. Beauchamp wants Chick to dig up Vinson Gowrie’s body, saying that Gowrie had not been shot with Beauchamp’s gun. Chick is aghast. However, it is four hours until midnight, at which point Sunday will be over and Beauchamp can expect to be lynched. Chick realizes that there is not enough time left to open the grave by official, legal channels. Passing his uncle Stevens’s office, he enters to find Stevens talking to Miss Habersham, an elderly woman who lives at the edge of town. Chick does try to get his uncle to consider exhuming the body, but the uncle rejects the idea flatly. Chick asks his friend Aleck Sander to help him; he, too, is aghast, but agrees to help. When Miss Habersham discovers what Chick plans to do with Aleck Sander, she offers to join them, to Chick’s surprise. She owns a truck. They set out, taking Chick’s horse to help with the task. Racing the clock, they find the grave in a country churchyard, dig it up, and discover that Vinson Gowrie is not in his own coffin. Instead, the body is that of a lumber buyer named Montgomery.
After they fill in the grave, Chick, Miss Habersham, and Aleck Sander go first to Gavin Stevens, who then goes to the sheriff; it is now time to seek legal authority to open the grave officially. The sheriff, interrupted during his breakfast and a little irritated, calls the district attorney and arranges for the exhumation. The group begins to formulate a plan. Miss Habersham will replace Will Legate, the crack shot who has been guarding the entry to the jail; Will needs to rest and tend to his farm, and Miss Habersham plans on guarding the jail door herself. Her sheer moral authority as an elderly white woman will keep any lynch mob from physically moving her out of the way to get at Beauchamp. There is some debate about whether Chick should go to school, or perhaps just home to bed, but Chick enlists his uncle to convince his parents to let him go along on the trip back to the churchyard for the official exhumation. Chick, woozy with exhaustion, drinks the first coffee he has ever had. Even the coffee precipitates an argument with his parents, who seem to want to keep him a child as long as possible.
As his mother leaves to help Miss Habersham guard the jail, the jolt from the caffeine causes Chick to remember a detail from the previous night: Aleck Sander had heard a man on a mule, and had seen him carrying a burden in front of him as he rode. Chick remembers the whole episode in detail; the group had decided that the man had something to do with the crime, and feared ambush as they left the area of the churchyard. Chick returns to town and finds what he feared he would—the lynch mob is there. He catches sight of his mother and Miss Habersham, calmly sewing in the doorway of the jail, and effectively blocking it. Chick, who had been determined to return to the churchyard, now wants to stay and protect his mother, but his uncle reveals a secret: Beauchamp is no longer in the jail. The sheriff has snuck him into his own house, just before dawn. So Stevens and Chick set out for the churchyard.
Chick and his uncle drive back to the graveyard. In an expansive mood, Gavin Stevens comments on race relations in general. Attempts by the federal government to force desegregation and civil rights failed after the Civil War; there is no reason to believe, Stevens thinks, that they will work now, in the middle of the twentieth century. Change will have to come from within the South, and slowly. The sheriff has arrived with two black convicts for laborers, and the convicts begin reopening the grave. Suddenly, Vinson’s father, Nub Gowrie, and other members of the clan appear, insisting that the grave be left alone. To back up his point, Gowrie pulls a gun. The sheriff convinces Gowrie to open the grave, but Gowrie only agrees if his sons do the digging rather than the convicts. The sons open the grave, and find that the coffin is now empty.
The sheriff begins to try to figure out what happened. Aleck Sander had seen a man with a mule carrying, presumably, a body. What had that man done with it? Stevens speculates that the murderer had buried Jake Montgomery in the Gowrie grave the previous night, but then heard Miss Habersham, Aleck Sander, and Chick digging it up again. This unknown person would have had to get rid of the body he was carrying quickly, so the group searches the sand next to a nearby creek, which would be an easy place to dig. They find a shallow grave containing Montgomery, and guess that his was the second body the murderer disposed of that night. The shallow grave suggests it had been dug in a hurry, with dawn approaching. The group then finds Vinson Gowrie’s body in quicksand nearby.
Given all this evidence, it appears that the murderer had dug up Vinson, put Montgomery in his grave, dumped Vinson in the quicksand, then had been forced to move Montgomery when he realized that Miss Habersham, Aleck Sander, and Chick had discovered the substitution. Lucas Beauchamp, therefore, is innocent. Montgomery had been present, alive, at Vinson’s funeral, at which time Lucas had been in jail. The sheriff can also tell that Vinson was not shot by Beauchamp’s gun. The murder weapon belongs to another member of the Gowrie clan, Crawford.
The sheriff, Stevens, and Chick haul Montgomery’s body back to Jefferson to be examined by a coroner. The sheriff, certain that Vinson was killed by his brother, returns his body to his father to bury yet again. The group arrives back in Jefferson, and the lynch mob, realizing that there will be no lynching, breaks up. Sheriff Hampton and Stevens now begin to unravel the plot, based partly on what Beauchamp is willing to tell them.
Vinson and Crawford Gowrie, they learn, had a business selling timber, but Crawford had been cheating his brother, selling part of the timber on the sly to Jake Montgomery. Beauchamp stumbled onto the plot himself. When Vinson learned of it, Crawford hatched a plan to murder Vinson and make it look like Beauchamp did it. Crawford invited Beauchamp to bring his gun to the country store (Beauchamp usually wore the gun on Saturdays as a kind of ornament). Crawford challenged Beauchamp to a feat of difficult shooting; Crawford then lured Vinson to the spot and shot him. The crowd, streaming from the store and finding Beauchamp with a freshly fired weapon, assumed he was the murderer.
Jake Montgomery discovered the truth, he and blackmailed Crawford. But Jake, it seems, was going to have Crawford arrested anyway, and was digging up Vinson’s body as evidence when Crawford caught him, killed him, buried Montgomery in Vinson’s grave, and dumped Vinson in the quicksand. Later that same night, Crawford saw Miss Habersham, Aleck Sander, and Chick digging up the grave, and knew he would have to get rid of Montgomery’s body, too. Sheriff Hampton arrests Crawford, who quickly commits suicide in jail. In the final scene, a free Beauchamp visits Chick and his uncle. His uncle charges Beauchamp two dollars for his expenses in the case, and Beauchamp, troublesome to the last, pays a fourth of the bill in pennies and demands a receipt.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010